Why Political Positioning Is Not the Best Long Term Strategy

This post is primarily intended for user experience professionals and product managers; however, I hope  that folks from many disciplines will find this post relevant and conclude that it is a good starting point for a spirited discussion. Please comment away!

Some people believe that the best way to produce a successful product is to align it with power and influence in the organization, referred to in this post as political positioning. Political positioning means that you create product requirements that are primarily consistent with the views of the most powerful people in the organization. The idea is that they are the most powerful and influential;therefore, they must know what is right. While this might be an effective short term strategy, it is often the very reason why products fail to meet customer needs, why infighting occurs within organizations, and why product plans fall short of their goals.

I must admit there are often compelling reasons to position your product politically. You can ensure your survival as an employee for at least the short term (e.g. “They can’t punish me for doing what they ask me to do.”) and it makes day-to-day life easier—you don’t have to get buy-in from as many people.  However, being product manager or a user experience professional means that you must lead by doing what’s best for the long term success of the customer and, ultimately, the product. This means occasionally having to convince people who have the power and influence in the organization that their vision, however rosy it may seem, is not what’s best for the product. This often means becoming more influential yourself without gaining power.

Here are some reasons why you should avoid political positioning:

People in power are often insulated from what’s happening on the ground. As a user researcher, I know very well what it’s like to spend time with customers, lots of customers, and then realize that management’s perception of customers was very different from what I had seen and heard in the field. This is a common problem: Executive leadership—the people with the most power and influence—are not in touch with customer needs.  As a product manager, your instincts about customers are usually pretty good because you have spent time with customers and studied the research about them. Therefore, when you politically position your product, you are often not only going against the customer but also going against what you know in your gut is the right approach.  Not a great place to be.

When next season rolls around, you may not be on top The people who have the power and influence now don’t usually have it forever. So, when you align yourself with people who are in favor, you implicitly put yourself in opposition to folks who are out of favor. Your common sense tells you to choose sides because loyalty is often well rewarded; however, loyalty, especially blind loyalty, can be a double edged sword. Don’t underestimate the degree or the quickness with which power can shift in an organization. If the other side rises to power, they will remember where you stood when they were on the losing end of the bargain. The goal here is not to align with any one source of power but to convince all powers great and small that your vision is the right one. By not choosing sides, you are more likely to win in the long run.

Lose yourself and you’ve lost almost everything The biggest shortcoming of political positioning is that you can lose yourself and what you stand for. For user experience professionals, this is particularly important because we represent interests that are not politically popular. So, if we decide to side with power and influence, we are often not only going against the principles that define our profession, but we are also pushing ourselves out of a job. As a user experience professional, if you don’t represent the customer, then who do you represent? Unfortunately, there are plenty of folks in a business organization who are more qualified and better positioned to intentionally or unintentionally not represent the customer than you are, and they will win.

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2 thoughts on “Why Political Positioning Is Not the Best Long Term Strategy

  1. Political alignment results in the preservation, rather than validation of executive assumptions. It can kill the company.

    That said, in some companies, political alignment is the only possibility, as is death of the company. The execs will blame poor execution, the staff. They won’t look in the mirror and blame themselves.

    I don’t know that people under such executives can work towards validation of assumptions. If they get found out, their efforts will not be rewarded. And, their efforts will be thwarted.

  2. I have worked at companies where political alignment was the only option for ux and product management leaders. This is particularly perilous for ux leadership because the first thing executives hear about is how much users hate the UI—particularly true with the consumer Web apps. Executives then blame ux for all the problems because the problems on the surface seem UI related when the problem is usually more strategic than tactical as in the product doesn’t meet customer needs. I would rather try to get visibility in the organization early and try to convince the executive management to embrace the customer model. If I fail, I would rather go down fighting that fight then go down later after I compromised and acquiesced to such an extent that I end up unintentionally owning the politically aligned solution. If I go down at the end, it is seen as bad execution. If I go down early, the user model is not compromised and at least it serves as reference point for future lessons learned, etc.

    David, I realize there is no easy solution to this.

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